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Derek Coleman: 'Tis the season for Christmas songs new and old

Dec. 14, 2012 @ 10:53 AM

I am no musician. I can’t hold a tune, don’t sing and don’t play an instrument. Like most people though, I do like music and at this time of year I especially like Christmas music. Somehow it seems to set the tone for the holiday season. The feeling is similar on both sides of the Atlantic and so is the music which, of course, you can divide into two categories — the traditional and the popular.

The traditional songs began long ago. Chanting, singing and music were all part of pagan traditions and were adopted by the early Christian church. As far back as the year 129 A.D., a Roman Bishop agreed that a song that was called the “Angel’s Hymn” could be sung at a Christmas service and the first Christian hymns written specifically for Christmas are found in Rome as early as the 4th century. These early hymns were in Latin, of course, and it was not until the 12th and 13th centuries that songs in the native language began to appear in France, Germany and particularly Italy, where St. Francis of Assisi staged nativity plays and encouraged them.

The English had a tradition of circle dances in which the dancers sang. These they called “carols,” a name that originally meant to dance, but which, over time, came to mean a song with a religious theme that is treated in a festive way. The first truly recognizable English Christmas carols can be found in the writings of John Audlay in 1426. He was a chaplain from Shropshire on the English-Welsh border and he listed 25  “caroles of Cristemas.” These were probably sung by “wassailers,” groups of people who visited the houses round about to sing in exchange for food and drink.

In the middle of the 17th century, civil war came to England and the king was executed. For 11 years, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans ruled and actually made laws banning Christmas and Christmas carols. It is not known how widespread obedience to these laws was, but with the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II, the celebrations were restored and singing carols in the streets in return for charity was allowed.

For the next 200 years the custom grew, but despite the long history of singing carols very few have survived from the early years. Apart from old folk songs such as “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” and “The Holly and the Ivy,” most of today’s carols were written starting in the 19th century with “Silent night” being one of the earliest. It was written in Austria in 1816 and first performed two years later.

Popular Christmas songs also started in the 19th century. The ever popular “Jingle Bells” was first published in 1857, but it wasn’t until the 1930s and the advent of radio and the movies that most of today’s popular songs were written.

As I said earlier, the tradition of Christmas songs is common in both Britain and America, but tastes in each country seem to differ a little. Of the 10 most popular Christmas songs in the United States only one, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” appears on the British list. Over here “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” tops the list with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” next. In Britain people prefer Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is You” and one of my own favorite’s “Fairytale of New York” is next.

The British and the Irish always have an unofficial competition to gain the No. 1 spot in the charts for Christmas with artists waiting until late November to release new songs in an effort to get there. This sometimes throws up odd results such as in the year 2000 when the theme from “Bob the Builder” was the most popular Christmas record. Other records lacking a Christmas theme such as Jona Lewie’s 1980 hit “Stop the Cavalry,” which was about the Crimean War, also made it high in the charts. Despite only the briefest of mentions of Christmas, this latter song is still widely played during the holiday and Lewie says even after 32 years he still derives 50 percent of his annual income from it. The same is true of the long defunct British band Slade’s 1972 hit “Merry Christmas Everybody,” which 40 years later is still No. 5 on the most popular tunes list.

As I said, I like Christmas songs and I miss hearing some of those I am used to because they are just not played over here. Others of my favorites are though and my problem at the moment is I have the tune to the Little Drummer Boy stuck in my head. So, if you’re out and about in a store somewhere and see a tall guy with a funny accent whistling, humming or par rumpa pum pumping that tune, it may well be me.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.